They love to learn but hate the power games

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Children love to learn but dislike being taught. This is one of the paradoxes at the heart of Cedric Cullingford's research findings.

Professor Cullingford, of Huddersfield university, does detailed, close-focus interviews with children about their lives. He contends that the structure of schooling is at odds with children's intense and freewheeling fascination with the world.

"Their perceived task in school is not so much to think as to guess what it is that the teachers want," he says in a paper on children's views of key stage 2, given at the British Educational Research Association's annual conference this month.

Children quickly perceive that schools are "the locus of teachers in which pupils are temporary, ephemeral and of low importance", he says. "Instead of being a companion with whom ideas are shared, teachers are put into the position of being imposers of facts, and organisers of the day."

This is not teachers' fault. "They are often brilliant as well as courageous in the way that they teach," he says.

In fact, the children realise that teachers do not have much social status either. "It only takes an Ofsted inspection for children to realise where real power lies." They also learn that bullying "is not confined to the playground but part of official policy".

Relationships - actual and longed-for - are at the heart of the school day for children, Professor Cullingford, who interviewed more than 250 children for his book The Best Years of their Lives? Pupils' experience of school (Kogan Page) concludes.

What they long for, and sometimes achieve, is an intellectual dialogue with the teacher, and a personal connection. Celebrities interviewed for The TES's "My Best Teacher" column, remember the ones with whom they had an individual rapport.

The contrasts between schools as the places for discipline and testing, and as centres of social life, can make them very volatile places, he says.

"One should not underestimate the significance of the personal lives of pupils as they are played out in school."

Children tend to agree that rules are important and curb their natural naughtiness; this view may come from bitter experience in the playground.

"Being picked on is what pupils dread. Sometimes the teacher is the bully, but more often the playground is the locus of conflict, and verbal abuse is more distressing than physical attack.

Most bullying is hidden and ignored. It often takes place outside of class.

But the most heartfelt pain, says Professor Cullingford, is more likely to derive from an inadvertent remark, "so easily made by the teacher".

A child-friendly curriculum, based on what children themselves say, would centre around the fundamental and open questions of who we are and why, and how society operates.

He concludes: "The difference between the needs of pupils and what happens to them could not be greater. The result is that they learn many things we would not want them to - insecurity, lack of self-belief, loss of motivation, indifference and cynicism.

"We are, however, so accustomed to the way the system operates that this finding appears extreme."

Diane Hofkins

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